Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Posted on June 11, 2012


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has a good description of the problem I see with so much education today:

What’s really angering about instructions of this sort is that they imply there’s only one way to put the rotisserie together – their way. And that presumption wipes out all the creativity. Actually there are hundreds of ways to put the rotisserie together and when they make you follow just one way without showing you the overall problem the instructions become hard to follow in such a way as to not make mistakes. You lose feeling for the work. And not only that, it’s very unlikely that they’ve told you the best way.

This is what I think so many students experience when trying to learn something new. When it’s presented in a step by step manner there’s no context, no understanding of why the steps are the way they are. So you can get to the finish line more quickly, but you’re not actually sure how you got there and you don’t feel confident that you arrived at the right place.

The point of instructions usually is to get you to the finished result as quickly as possible, but that shouldn’t be the goal of education. Instead of racing toward the finish line by following step by step instructions we need to create environments where students can explore numerous paths, both good and bad, toward the finish line, environments that reduce the amount of noise so that good solutions can be discovered more easily but that recognize there is more than one way to arrive at a solution and that there is value in making mistakes along the way.

More and more I just want people to get away from cookbook style instruction and focus more on creating instruction that allows for trial and error, allows for missteps that are informative. This style of education is much more challenging to put together, but I think the payoff is huge.

The book continues:

Sometime look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you’ll see the difference. The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions.

It’s so tempting to say that to become the expert craftsman you need to learn the instructions, but when you’re given a direct path to the right answer there’s no reason to explore the components of that path. Why would you? You’ve already reached the goal. But the components of the path are so important. They allow you to mix and match components for future solutions. Without understanding the nuances of the components you can’t use what you’ve learned creatively, you can only reproduce the same path again.

It’s not easy to create a lesson that doesn’t go straight to the answer but doesn’t lose the student along the way either. I believe, though, that if you can hit that balance effectively, then you’ll have a learning environment that is much more effective than step by step instruction.